MAURICE O’Meara grew up in Malahide, a mile and a half from the gates of Portmarnock Golf Club.
“I spent all my teenage summers watching Irish Opens, the really good ones – Seve, Olazabal, Woosie. That’s what we’re trying to get back,” explains the secretary manager of Killarney Golf Club.
It’s a recurring theme around the host club to this year’s renewal. All the ingredients appear to be in place – a good home, an infrastructurally robust town, an ambitious sponsor with relatively deep pockets.
As the countdown continues, O’Meara looks stressed, but in a positive sort of way.
“We’ve got to remember that the Irish Open has lost its attraction somewhat since the halcyon days of the Nineties,” he says. “We need to rekindle that. From the club’s standpoint, the [European] Tour, and [sponsors] 3, that’s what we are trying to get back to. It’s a marquee event on the European tour.”
In truth, though, not for some time – primarily due to the one factor beyond the control of the organisers, the weather. It spoiled Adare Manor and Carton House, and fans had to peer through their wetsuits to salute last year’s winner at Baltray, Shane Lowry. The switch to the August Bank Holiday just might outfox the weather gods, who’ve already been playing ducks and drakes with Killarney’s preparations.
“In November we had the floods, and we had to rethink our plans,” sighs O’Meara. “The floods meant we were ramping up earlier than expected. We had to get in at the course a lot sooner; we had planned to get the real heavy work done in March, but that had to be done in February. At this stage [head course superintendent] David McIndoe is concentrating on getting the greens up to speed,” explains the secretary-manager.
“The recent rain has helped us following the heat, and now it’s a question of getting the tee boxes and playing surfaces up to tournament pace.”
And it will be resplendent, insists O’Meara. Visitors at the beginning of this month deepened the members’ concerns that things looked less than lush around the Killeen course which will host the Open. If O’Meara retains concerns, he’s camouflaging them as well as Mr McIndoe must be.
“At this stage we’re down to the end game. All the work has been done and the final nip and tuck will be taken care of by the course closure [which took place on July 13]. We spent €2 million on the Killeen course in 2006. All the greens and boxes were relaid, so we’re 100% confident that it will be ready.”
Secretary-manager is an aged term for what is a club’s de facto chief executive and Maurice O’Meara knows that if the weather is benign, the club’s cash registers will be ringing well beyond Sunday’s finale on the par four 18th.
“It’s tough to put a figure on it, but from a marketing perspective, in terms of putting Killarney Golf Club back on the map, it’s invaluable having the Open here. It’s nearly 20 years since we had it here.”
The Dubliner wasn’t around Killarney for Nick Faldo’s back to back successes in 1991 and ’92, but he recognises a buzz when he feels one. “From May to the middle of June, you couldn’t move around this place with the traffic, and I’m not talking about the weekends – it was Monday to Sunday. That was a consequence of the weather, the value, and the important fact that we are bringing the Irish Open to Killarney. People want to play the third and sit back and watch the telly, comparing what club they hit with McIlroy.”
The “challenging environment” as O’Meara calls the ‘R’ word has meant that the club has had to draw in its horns, perhaps more than most, in terms of rack rates. Where once 18 holes on Killeen was €130, the club is now offering impressive rates of €150 for 54 holes, 18 on each of its three courses – Killeen, O’Mahony’s Point and Lackabane. That’s the rub – Killarney has three courses to fill and maintain over the course of a long season.
“The domestic market is huge for us, we’re all in difficult times, and we’ve consciously tried to make it more attractive in terms of fantastic rates. Everybody always thought that we were over-reliant on the American market, but it was never more than 17% of our total business. Nowadays, it’s more like 7%.”
So a lot of pride-swallowing outreach initiatives to the Irish golfer then? “It’s not a matter of swallowing pride, it’s business. Every business has had to introduce new thinking and change tack. We have three golf courses we have to fill and maintain, pay the staff, we’ve got to retain membership as well, and that’s a key for us – there’s over 2,000 members here now. Including green fees our turnover, would be 3m a year.”
O’Meara joined Killarney a little over two years ago, as did new club pro Dave Keating. They were part of a broader club drive to refresh the brand, one that had become slightly frayed at the edges. With the development of Fota Island, the Old Head, Adare Manor and several others, Killarney’s once mighty aura was fading, and fading fast.
“Things might have got a little bit tired,” is O’Meara’s way of describing things, but either way, remedial action was required – literally from changing the club’s logo to changing its entire strategy.
Killarney might have retained the hotels, restaurants and craic but people had stopped sleepwalking into their arms. The golf club had to go out and sell itself again.
“We knew we had to go out and ramp things up. There were so many new golf course developments spending so much money that we didn’t have. There were new state of the art resorts appearing all over the place, but Killarney has a different attraction – the town, the golf, the nightlife, the people and our proximity to all of this. There was a conscious decision to push things on.”
What the club had hoped for but couldn’t have bargained on was an early opportunity to host an Irish Open again.
It was always part of the Killeen revamp strategy, but the Tour mindset seemed to be east coast and links.
“We were making discreet enquiries in the background, and then the opportunity to make a presentation came and we grabbed it with both hands,” smiles O’Meara, perhaps privy to inside info that indicates Killarney came up on the rails and stole it on the line from Fota and a couple of other hopefuls.
“I’ve heard lots of different courses were in the running, but we put together a 50-page document to 3, Fáilte Ireland and the European Tour. The idea was to broaden the appeal of the Open, make it more than a golf tournament and that seemed to sit very comfortably with 3, who were of the same mind.
“We’re the only course in the country with three 18 hole championship golf courses, and we were able to offer things others couldn’t. The Irish Hotel Federation came in with a number of bed nights that helped clinched the deal,” reveals O’Meara.
“You can come out the gate of the club, go into town in five minutes for great grub and entertainment – and that’s after the onsite entertainment. This is our chance to shine. We want to do that.”
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